Blessings of children

It was with a sense of dismay that I read the posts over at Father Z and The Deacon’s Bench, regarding the issue of whether or not children should be given blessings during the distribution of the Eucharist. My initial knee-jerk reaction was “oh no, not another thing I’m doing wrong, gosh these traddies ARE strict and it does seem rather mean-spirited”.

The arguments against not giving children blessings are however logically coherent. Firstly and perhaps most importantly, it is not in the rubrics. Whilst it may not be the most serious of liturgical abuses, it needs to be remembered that the liturgy is at the centre of our faith and as Cardinal Burke noted last year we must ensure that the Eucharist is entered into properly , according to Church norms, if we are not to weaken or lose our faith.

Secondly, the blessing of children seems to have its roots in a very Anglican practice, namely that all are welcome around the Lord’s table. Wonderful as this sounds, the Eucharist is no mere symbol, it is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He offers himself to all however we have to ensure that we are in a state to receive Him and not guilty of mortal sin. Whereas in Anglican churches sidespeople enthusiastically shepherd all members of the congregation to the altar, row by row, either to receive communion or a blessing, there is reason why this practice does not occur in Catholic churches. The responsibility remains on the communicant to decide whether or not they should present for communion, as to partake of communion in a state of mortal sin or not believing in the real presence is an offence against God himself as it profanes the Eucharist.

This is why it is important that not everybody is herded up en masse to receive as to do so places undue pressure upon those who may not be able to receive for a multitude of reasons, such as not having observed the Eucharistic fast or perhaps already having received the Eucharist twice that day already. If everyone is always encouraged to traipse up to the altar then those who must not receive the Eucharist may well receive out of either habit or fear of what others may think.

To take children up to the altar during communion can foster a misleading attitude in terms of how we think of the Eucharist. It is not simply about us, but about God meeting with us, not something to which we are entitled, but something which is freely given, of which we must ensure that we are worthy of receiving.

I can identify with Fr Cory Sticha when he says:

“One of the arguments frequently given in defense of blessing children is, “They feel like they get something.” Yes, because we wouldn’t want our children to learn how to do something without getting something in return.”

On the occasions where we have attended the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, my eldest has got quite indignant that she has been instructed to stay behind in the pews, “it’s not fair” being the refrain, she feels excluded and of course all children of a certain age want to join in with what their parents are doing. Whilst it is undoubtedly character building, given the practice goes on in the Novus Ordo, it’s another (minor) barrier for us in terms of exploring the Extraordinary Form. The eldest hates it, has no idea what is going on, finds it unintelligible and she’s not even allowed to join in for a blessing.

I’m not sure whether or not I agree with the sentiment that often parents want the children to go up because it gives them the warm and fuzzies. Whilst this may be the case in some families, the eldest went through a prolonged shy period until she was about six and I had no desire to trundle up a truculent child, ensuring that she kept her arms in the requisite crossed position or didn’t shy away from being touched like a scalded cat before eagerly dashing back to her seat, but we did so, not knowing any better, thinking it was the done thing. I’m not particularly comfortable with the blessings distributed by the extraordinary ministers of communion either. But then again I’m not entirely comfortable with extraordinary ministers of communion distributing the body …

On the other hand, when one listens to the blessings that are given out to the children, they are certainly not priestly or sacramental, being somewhere along the lines of “God bless you dear” or “May the Lord Jesus bless you and keep you safe”. They are carefully worded to ensure that there can be no confusion that this is a sacramental or “official” blessing. In which case what on earth are blessings doing during the distribution, particularly given that they are wholly unnecessary, a blessing is given to the entire congregation at the end of the Mass?

There’s also the issue of very little children such as ours. If the baby is left in her car seat during communion, she wails inconsolably fearing permanent abandonment and disturbs the peace of the others; if the toddler is not firmly manacled or forcibly velcroed to an adult during communion, she will run off to begin disassembling of the Easter garden or the shrine to our patron saint. We have very little practical choice other than to take them up with us. So of course when faced with my beaming brood of Botticelli cherubs any priest with half a heart will naturally want to give them a little blessing…And why not?

The formidable Elizabeth Scalia has reminded me of why I don’t eat peanuts in bars, when she questions the hygiene aspect of the practice – the priest will touch little Xavier on the head or face prior to to dipping his hand back into the ciborium to dispense the Body to the next person. Not something that is worth dwelling upon in any great detail. The Church should not be stingy with blessings she argues and sits on the fence, blessings of children, is not something that we should get het up about either way, it should be an individual matter for each parish.

I’m not sure that I agree. Whilst not to bless children seems very much against the spirit of Mark 10:14, it is not as if the children are being forbidden from getting to know Christ and building a relationship with Him. It is precisely because of the reverence in which the Church holds the Eucharist that it prescribes the certain conditions under which one is eligible to receive. We are not telling children that they are exempt from the Eucharist or the altar for ever, in fact we are teaching them a valuable lesson in terms of its importance.

What is important pastorally is that there is consistency, i.e that practices and customs do not vary from parish to parish and priest to priest, causing confusion, upset and hurt. It would therefore be helpful to see some official clarification from the Vatican one way or another. Technically this should be a piece of cake next to Summorum Pontificum. But then again, as my husband and countless clergy will testify, some of the biggest causes of fallings out amongst congregations are where precious offspring are involved. Perhaps this is one of those battles that just isn’t worth fighting?

Update:

Joseph Shaw has written a detailed post that outlines precisely how this practice contravenes the rubrics. A few important points come to light, firstly that the blessing of children was never outlined in the list of liturgical abuses described by the Blessed John Paul II, which means that secondly, the majority of the faithful are unaware as I was, that this should not be customary.

One of his commenters raises a point that I was thinking of when writing the post. Many non-Catholics and/or those not permitted to receive communion often come to receive a blessing in good faith, as a sign that they are making a spiritual communion. Indeed the celebrant often invites them to do so. In the light of this it seems that official clarification and pastoral advice is overdue.

Lost liturgical heritage

I was minded to look at the newsletter from my old school earlier and have taken the inevitable trip down memory lane. One of these days I really should knuckle down to writing a pseudonymous autobiography, however what jumped out at me was the invitation to attend an Easter celebration at the school, for an “afternoon of creative liturgy and sharing of the Paschal journey”.

This sums up my liturgical background quite neatly and why, unlike some Catholic bloggers, I rarely write about the liturgy, because put very simply, I am liturgically illiterate, for a variety of reasons.

Although technically a cradle catholic, my grandfather was a benefactor of and greatly involved in the rebuilding of Buckfast Abbey, where he is buried and where I was baptised. My mother is a lapsed catholic; she is of the generation who was misled by the press and her priests and felt a great deal of hurt and disappointment when Humanae Vitae was issued. My father was, although he claims he is now lapsed, a staunch Anglican and a fierce admirer of Martin Luther, “one of the greatest men who ever lived”.

Thus my upbringing or Christian formation was far from conventional, religion was barely mentioned, let alone practiced at home, apart from the regular arguments between my parents as to who was the most wicked of the Tudor monarchs and whether Mary or Elizabeth numbered a higher heretic body count, when both would become amusingly tribal. I have a vague memory of asking why lying was wrong and being told that “Jesus doesn’t like it”, which meant nothing and later on in my teens, repeating in an RE essay, my mother’s mantra that the Pope was really very wicked owing to his stance on condoms, in the attempt to be the cool kid and stir up a bit of controversy. But other than the Pope being wrong on contraception, Smithfield bonfires and the merits of Martin Luther, religion didn’t feature at all in our house, unless it came up in the context of school.

My father is rather a fine organist and played for 30 years in our local C of E parish church as well as leading the choir, hence my sister and I were both recruited to join when I was seven and we regularly attended the morning service and Evensong (complete with a copy of the Enid Blyton to read during the boring bits). Evensong seemed to consist of lots of old tone deaf people warbling, hurried putting down of a book, standing up, turning 90 degrees, singing “Glory to the Father and to the Son, And to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now and shall be forevermore Amen”, before settling back down to the book again, before another bout of singing. Not to mention burning fingers on the hot water pipes underneath the choir stalls where the books were quickly stowed.

I had absolutely no idea whatsoever that I was a Roman Catholic, or what that meant, until my sister started secondary school, at the local private Catholic boarding school. I remember the night before she started, her hurriedly being taught how to make the sign of the cross, in true nuns on the run style. My mother literally told her, “my father used to have a funny rhyme, spectacles, testicles, wallet and watch”, before dissolving into peals of laughter. She was instructed to take communion, simply by joining the queue and copying what everyone else does. When we went to the obligatory Masses on Parents’ weekends etc, I was horrified. Though my parents were totally charmed by the Headmistress in full Joyce Grenfell swing during the pre-Mass warmup of hymn singing “C’mon gels, give it some welly”, it all seemed very evangelical or Pentecostal to me. I equated Catholics with Gospel choirs and the Kenny Everett character with the big pointy hands.

My father was torn between abhorrence, embarrassment and hilarity. He chose the latter. One of the things that I’ve always admired about my father is that from an early age, he always taught me to think for myself and not to give two hoots about what anyone else ever thought. He never does. So during Mass he would literally hold his nose and belt out “Our God Reigns – Down the Drains” or “Jubilate Have a Chapati” as loud as he possibly could, before cackling evilly adding “utter tripe” in a not-so-sotto voce.

When I started at the school, my sister and I were summoned to a meeting at the Rector’s house one Saturday morning. He made the point that given we were both baptised Catholics, yet we regularly attended his church, a decision really needed to be made as to what denomination we were going to be. I was happy to stay as a C of E, the music and weirdness of the nuns at my school frankly terrified me, I had absolutely no interest in being a Catholic whatsoever, but obviously a decision needed to be taken about confirmation. We came home rather confused, told our parents that we had been told to choose, whereupon my mother, who has an inbuilt terror of nuns and consequences of not doing what we were told, rushed off to Sister Mary Francis, who decreed that we absolutely must be Catholics and therefore attend Mass with the boarders every Sunday morning.

So that’s what happened and subsequently I became a boarder. I never had any catechesis or took First Holy Communion, I simply lined up and copied what everyone else did. Genuflecting was never explained, it was just something that we all did in rows upon leaving the school chapel, and it took me years to work out what ON EARTH was that funny thing people did at the start of the Gospel. Why did everyone scratch their nose, chin and neck. I copied doing a funny thing with my thumb without having any idea what it was I was supposed to be doing and hoping that no-one would ever notice. I don’t think that they did.

Despite being an ostensibly Catholic school, there was absolutely no catechesis whatsoever. We all had to take Religion as a compulsory GCSE, but no talk of sacramentals whatsoever. The nuns seemed to do their own thing, so long as everyone went to Mass every Sunday and on Feast days that was it really. I don’t really remember much teaching on Catholic ethics either. It did feature as part of the GCSE, we covered abortion and euthanasia, but that was about it. Contraception was certainly talked about and covered in great detail. We had several informative talks from the local FPA clinics, we all knew about the methods that were available then, about condoms, the pill and the signs and symptoms of STDS, but no-one ever told us not to go and have sex, or that sex was evil, dirty and wicked, contrary to common perceptions about Catholic schools.

The liturgies were chock full of Taise, Farrell and Christopher Walker. We weren’t averse to the odd bit of liturgical dance. Once, as a punishment, from what I recall, a group of us were recruited to join Mr Reece’s Morris dancing club, in which we had to learn to Morris dance in time for the Christmas Carol service. I can never again hear “O Little Town of Bethlehem” without chanting rhythmically “step – caper” at the end of each line. Yes, Clare P and I danced, complete with strap-on bells, jangley sticks and waving of handkerchiefs in the Sanctuary in front of the altar. As did the modern dance group during the Good Friday liturgy. Nobody knew any different.

I could relate various anecdotes for hours, one of these days there is an autobiography dying to be written, but needless to say it was guitars galore. At Easter, everyone, day-girls included, had to stay for the entire weekend, engaging in various Easter activities, from baking Easter chicks with the hard-pressed kitchen staff, to desert island discs in Poles’ common room. (Sarah Askew very daringly brought along Madonna’s Like a Prayer, radical rebel that she was, and I thought it was cool and hard to bring It’s a Sin, by the Pet Shop Boys). There was some bizarre bonfire type activity as part of the vigil, involving people dancing around it in a manic fashion, pretending to be drunk on mulled wine and singing “We are an Easter People and Alleluia is Our Song”. I cringed, wore a black spotty shirt from Kensington Market on top of a Cure t-shirt and pretended I was cooler than the rest of them to hide my embarrassment.

So, given all of that, the fact that I am now a practicing Catholic, is something of a surprise. This is not a post for conversion story, but amusing reflection and reminiscences aside, I actually feel really rather cheated. I appreciate all of the intellectual arguments around the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, but I find it really hard to “get into”, probably because a trendy Novus Ordo is all that I am used to. The demands of young children don’t make this any easier, it is hard enough to concentrate, focus and pray at ANY form of the Mass, when you have 3 children to be keeping an eye on, and because my eldest isn’t used to the extraordinary form either, she finds it terribly boring. I am normally too self conscious about noisy babies and toddlers ruining the silence for other people, to get into the habit of attending. It’s one of the things, I have promised myself I will seriously explore when the children are a little older.

Though I have largely outgrown the happy-clappiness and charismatic music of my schooldays, I prefer the commons all sung and preferably in Latin, this has been an acquired taste, as has plainsong, which has as much to do with my father’s own musical tastes, than any Catholic upbringing. There are many Catholics of my age and older who have experienced, if not as zany, a similar liturgical upbringing. The Novus Ordo is what we are used to, and the Extraordinary Form, just seems alien. Pope Benedict has done much in terms of liturgical reforms, however it isn’t all filtering down to Parishes. The sung vigil Mass on a Saturday night in my parish is an altogether different and more preferable experience to the Sunday morning service which is tailored to families and seems to feature the same four hymns.

It’s a very hard balance, “One more step along the way I go” may be a crowd pleaser, but the problem is, for people who are brought up solely on this stuff, they are missing an important part of our cultural heritage as Catholics. It is not for nothing that we are part of the Latin rite. I am fortunate, in that unlike many I did Latin GCSE at school and hail from a musical family, so the chants are not unfamiliar, my father is also an aficionado of plainsong and high church liturgical music which was passed down to us as children, but for many, “If I were a butterfly” seems a perfectly reasonable thing to be singing in Church.

At the moment there seems to be a rather unnecessary divide between those who would prefer the EF Mass and those who are terrified that it’s going to become compulsory and must be stopped at all costs. I’m not sure that I understand it. In my world it would be horses for courses, those who want the EF should be able to access it as they wish, equally the Novus Ordo should not be spurned for those of us who have grown up with it and can’t quite get to grips with priests facing away from us, a silent canon and lots of incomprehensible gestures. But what we do need to ensure, is that non of our culture, none of our rich liturgical heritage is done away with. Having the Mass in the vernacular is one thing. Holding hands around the altar whilst singing the Caribbean Our Father quite another.

Rather than polarise the two camps, it seems sensible to keep the EF, but also gradually reform the Novus Ordo in order to more properly reflect the changes of Vatican II and get rid of the liturgical abuses that sets everyone’s teeth on edge. In that way, the EF may become more accessible to many and seen as complement, not a threat. The Lord is equally present through the sacrament at both kinds, even though the Heavenly Host may not be singing Colours of Day.